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Edward F. Markquart

What is a Lutheran?

Reformation Sunday     Romans 3:19-28

How important is the word, Lutheran, in our congregation’s name?  The name of our congregation is Grace Lutheran Church?  Perhaps we could say our name as follows; Grace LUTHERAN Church, and we could really underscore the word, Lutheran.  Or, maybe we could be Grace Lutheran CHURCH and so we would lighten the word Lutheran and push the word, church.  Or maybe we could be known as GRACE Church, leave out the word, Lutheran, and just emphasize God’s grace.  Or maybe we could call us Grace Community Church and imply that we have no connection to the Lutheran church but that we are a generic congregation that serves our geographic community of Des Moines, Federal Way and Kent.  Or maybe we could call ourselves, the Faith Center and emphasize that this is a center when faith is nurtured and grown.  Or like many Four Square Gospel churches and Baptist churches and more recently some Lutheran churches, we could cover up our denomination loyalties, give us a more neutral name, but secretly push our denomination’s doctrines. So what name shall we call this congregation?

I have another question for you.  Why do you belong to a Lutheran congregation? Why aren’t you a member of a Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Catholic, Independent, or Pentecostal church? Why are you a member of a Lutheran Church?  Perhaps it is because you were born one.  Years ago, your mother or father, or grandmother or grandfather belonged to a Lutheran congregation and the concept of Lutheran is just part of your family heritage.  You have been that way for generations.  Or, perhaps you are a Lutheran because you married one.  Your spouse was a member of a Lutheran church, and eventually, you were dragged to a new membership class or perhaps you came voluntarily and happily.  You don’t have childhood roots in the Lutheran church but you married a Lutheran and so you are here today.  Or, perhaps some of you belong to a Lutheran church because it was in the neighborhood.  You wanted to be a member of a neighborhood congregation; you wanted the congregation to be part of your traffic pattern. The location is convenient and so you are here. Or, perhaps you went church shopping and this particular congregation is the one for you. You spent a good deal of time looking carefully at other congregations, and the pastors, programs, choirs, and worship services met your spiritual needs.  The congregation and its ministries fit right, and like a pair of shoes or article of clothing, it had to fit right and this congregation fits you and your family.  So people join a Lutheran congregation for numerous and varied reasons.

So I have another question to ask you.  What is a Lutheran?  Is a Lutheran someone who belongs to a Lutheran church?  That is not true.  We have all kinds of people, who in their beliefs and traditions are Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Fundamentalists, etc. You can belong to this congregation and believe like the denomination of your childhood. We have many different denominations represented in our parish. 

Is a Lutheran a person or congregation that has pictures of Martin Luther in the wallet or on the walls?  Is there one picture of Martin Luther in this building?  No.  Does someone have a picture of Martin Luther in his or her home or wallet?  Do any of you have a picture of Martin Luther at home or in your wallet?  No, and the same was true of the last service, except for two people, both retired Lutheran pastors. So Lutherans are not people who carry pictures of Martin Luther around or display them in prominent places in their church or homes.

What is a Lutheran?  Lutherans are people who think a certain way about God and Christ. Lutherans are people who are united by certain beliefs and doctrines that are very important to them. 

I just now saw some of you yawn in indifference. Doctrines are boring. Doctrines are dull. You think to yourself, “Tune out this sermon and sleep with my eyes wide open.” Many of you are not concerned so much about doctrines as having inner spirituality, doing social action for the poor, being part of a religious community, or loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Denominational doctrines are not that important as are these other more critical issues. Some of you may say, “As long as a person lives a moral life, doctrines aren’t that important.”

Doctrines are the back bone that give us strength.  Would you all imagine a jelly fish?  A jelly fish has no back bone. The jelly fish just floats along in the water; it easily breaks apart when you hit the jelly fish with a stick.  We see jelly fish all the time in Puget Sound, and they seem just to be a living blob of jelly…with no backbone.  And so it is with Christians who don’t have a backbone; they end up being blobs of spirituality with no backbone, just floating along in the waters of life.

Imagine a human body without a backbone.  Without a backbone, there would be just a pile of skin, veins, organs and body parts on the floor.  You need backbone for all the body parts to attach to. … Imagine a car without a chassis.  Doors, windows, engine parts would all be on the ground.  You need a chassis for all the parts of the car to be attached to.  Without a chassis, a car is very weak.  … Imagine a house without a frame.  You need a strong frame to attach all the windows, doors, and panels to.  You can’t build a house without a frame.  

Imagine our new church building without those massive, five steel beams. As you leave church today, notice the five steel beams that are the muscle of our new church building.  This new church building will get its building-strength from these five giant steel beams.  The new church would fall down without those five steel girders. You can’t build anything substantial without having a strong frame.  We all know that. 

Today is Reformation Sunday, and the leaders of the Reformation church were concerned about strong doctrines as being the backbone, the chassis, the framework of the church.  There was passion inside of them for Biblical doctrines, for the truth of the Christian faith.  They asked the questions, “What are the essential truths of the Bible, the foundational doctrines that provide for the backbone of our Christian faith?”  With Titus, the Reformers would pray, “Give us instruction and sound doctrine.”  With Timothy, they agreed to be “nourished on the words of strong doctrine.” 

The Reformers worshipped God with their minds.  That is, they worshipped God with their hands, doing the loving work of God in the world.  They worshipped God with their feelings, finding God in the beauty of music, motion, and art.  They worshipped God with their feet, walking in the paths of love and righteousness.  But they also worshipped God with their minds.  The Bible says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind,” and the basic list includes loving God with your mind. The mind is the controlling center of the body, and the Apostle Paul calls for the renewal of our minds.  To worship God with your mind is thinking about the fundamental doctrines and truths of the Bible.

I liked the story by a theologian who talked about Moslems going into mosques to worship God.  What do Moslems do before they enter the mosque?  They take off their shoes, as a symbol of reverence.  This theologian suggested when Christians approach the doors to their churches, they leave their minds at the door. They take off their brains and leave them at the entrance.  They can go into their congregations and worship God with their hands, their arms, their voices, and their spirits; but they have left their minds at the entrance.  They don’t praise God with their thinking.

The Reformers wanted to worship God also with their minds.  They didn’t want to be spiritual jellyfish.

So what are the essential doctrines of the Lutheran church?  That is the important issue. Using the visual image of the five, exposed, giant, muscular beams of our new church that give essential strength to the new building, I will briefly talk about the five doctrines that give power and strength of our Christian faith, as expressed by the word, Lutheran.

The first steel beam is the Bible, the Word alone.  Lutherans believe in the Word alone.  A Latin phrase is, “sola Scriptura,” alone the Word.  Lutherans are a Bible centered people because in the Bible, we learn the truth about God, Christ, grace and faith.  … We center ourselves in the Bible, and our church is centered in the Bible. Examine the placement of our congregation’s “Big Bible,” here on the altar, front and center.  When you enter the sanctuary from the main aisle doors, the Bible is positioned right in the middle of the altar.  The Bible is the center, the focal point, of this church.  Now, if you attended the Mormon Tabernacle up in Bellevue, and walked into their key worship room (as I have when it was momentarily opened to the public), what is on the center of their altar in their primary worship room?  Yes, you guessed it, the book of Mormon. The center of their church is not the Bible but the book of Mormon.  Or in some churches, sitting on the center of their altar is a book of liturgy such as the Lutheran liturgy or the Book of Common Prayer for the Anglicans.  By the location of the Bible on the center of our Communion Table, you realize that this is a Bible centered church.  From the Bible, we learn the gracious mind and morals of God. … This is not a Word, “plus” church.  The emphasis is not the Bible plus the Norwegian heritage of lutefisk and lefsa, Ole and Lena jokes, and the basic morality of “don’t dance, don’t’ drink, don’t play cards, don’t go to movies.”  Our emphasis is not on the centrality of the word plus our national heritage such as Norwegian or German or Swedish or Danish. Nor is it the Word “plus” my particular interpretation of the Bible.  Here in this congregation, we discover that there are many interpretations of the Bible and these various interpretations are part of our congregational life together. We live together happily but not always harmoniously with many interpretations of the Bible within our congregation.  Look what is at the center of our worship life, here on the center of the altar? The Bible, not our interpretations of the Bible.

The second steel beam of our congregation is Christ alone, “sola Christos.”  Christ alone.  Jesus is the Word, and the Word is Jesus.  The person of Jesus reveals the heart and mind of God.  Christ was the heart and mind of God in the flesh on earth; Jesus is the heart and mind of the Holy Spirit today.  The Holy Spirit is nothing less than the Spirit of Christ with us at this moment. Jesus Christ is part of the Trinity, and we believe in a Trinitarian God:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  … But within the Trinity, Lutherans put more emphasis on the Son, on Jesus Christ.  The Seventh Day Adventists put more emphasis on the Father; the Pentecostals put more emphasis on the Spirit; and Lutherans put more emphasis on the Son.  Know the Son, and you know the Father. And the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to point to Christ. We are a Christo-centric church, a Christ centered church.    Look for example, at the carved totem sculpture near the altar.  The face of Christ is pronounced for all to clearly see, with a bright light shining on the face of Christ.  Hidden over here to the left is the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and the wings of the dove become flames of fire that point up to Christ.  That is what the Holy Spirit does; point us to Jesus Christ.  You will notice there are five crosses carved into the body of Christ, symbolizing the five wounds.  Christ is wounded but clearly resurrected by the powers of God in this carving.  Whereas in Roman Catholic churches, you often see a crucifix of the dead body of Christ, emphasizing the sacrificial death of Christ, our carving is of a resurrected Christ.  In almost all Lutheran churches, the cross is empty of the body, proclaiming that Christ is not dead on the cross but living today in our hearts. … In my adult membership class, I teach that often we need things down to our size to understand them.  For example, you don’t give a real, 18 wheel truck to a child, but you give them a toy 18 wheeler, so they can understand a real truck. Also, God is far too big for us to understand, so God came down to our size; God came down to earth as a human being, fully in the flesh of Jesus; so we could understand the gracious mind and loving morals of God.  Look at Jesus and you will be looking at God.  Listen to Jesus and you will be listening to God. … This congregation is Lutheran; that is, we are a Christ-centered congregation.

Third, Lutherans believe in grace alone. Grace alone. We are the “grace” people and we are pleased that our congregation is named, Grace Lutheran Church.  Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we know that our God is gracious.  And what does grace mean?  What does the word, grace, mean to us?  Gift.  What a grand word, gift.  All the letters of the Apostle Paul begin and end with grace:  “grace to you and peace from God.”  All the sermons of this congregation begin with that word of grace, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We know God’s word from Colossians; that we would come to know grace at it really is.  Grace means gift.  The love of God is a gift to us.  We can’t earn God’s love by our good religious behavior.  We can’t deserve it making ourselves better.  Like gifts at Christmas time and birthdays, they are just gifts, with no strings attached.  … We are not an “if” denomination.  God will love you more if you obey God; God will love you more if you have the right doctrines about Jesus Christ.  God will love you more if you obey the Ten Commandments and moral laws of the universe.  God will love you more if you are good; if you are dunked in water; if you curb your sin. If, if, if, if, if. There are always some conditions that if I fulfill them, God will love me more.  But in our Lutheran doctrine, we say that God loves sinful people.  That is the only kind of people there are: sinful people, and God and Jesus love sinners.  God’s love and forgiveness is given to us, while we were yet sinners. … Some of you realize that the names of our children symbolize this essential truth.  That is, the name of our daughter Anne comes from the Hebrew name, Hannah, which means grace.  Joel comes from the Hebrew word, Jo-el, which means, the Lord our God.  The name Nathan comes from the Hebrew word, Na-than-el which means gift.  You add these names all together and the names say:  “Gracious is the Lord our God’s gift.” That is very Lutheran. … Look at our altar and the words carved on our altar.  In the very center of our altar carving is the word, grace, and it is carved larger than the other letters. The word, grace, is carved and is located right under the Bible that reveals the grace of God.  … So where would you find out that the Lord God loves us graciously, that the forgiveness of God is given to us as a gift?  Would you find this out by looking at the infinite expanse of the ocean? No.  Would you find this out by looking at the infinite expanse of the stars at night? No. Would you find this out on the rolling hills of a green golf course? No.  It is in the Word, the Bible, the person of Jesus, that you find out that our God is gracious. People also love the hymn, “Amazing Grace” because this hymn captures the essence of our faith.

The fourth beam is faith alone.  What is our response to God’s gracious love that is so freely given to us?  What does God want from us?  God wants us to believe, to trust in Christ.  More than 300 times in the New Testament, we are called to believe in Christ; only four times, are we asked to be “born again.”  The word, believe, occurs all the time and the phrase, “born again,” only four times.  In other words, to be “born again” is to believe or trust in Christ.  Not once does the New Testament ask us to believe in God; not once does the New Testament want us to believe in the Holy Spirit; but 300 times we are called to believe in Jesus Christ, to put our trust in Christ.  98% of Americans believe in God, but the Bible doesn’t encourage us to believe in the existence of God, but to put our trust in Jesus Christ. Nor does the New Testament encourage you to make a decision for Jesus Christ.  If you can find one place in the Bible that we Christians are called to make a decision for Jesus Christ, I will give you five dollars, no fifty dollars, no five hundred dollars, no one thousand dollars.  I am safe. Not once does the New Testament call you to make a decision for Jesus Christ but repeatedly asks for you and me to put our trust in Christ.  … What is it to believe in Christ?  Belief in Christ is an inner trust of the heart.  It is a heart ruled by trust. Such as in the children’s sermon today. When I ask a little child to stand on a tall step-ladder and then ask the child to jump into my arms, the child does.  The child trusts my promise that I will catch him or her.  I don’t trick them and let them splat on the floor. The child trusts my word that I will catch him or her.  That’s just the way it is. And similarly, we can trust God and the good promises of God that God has made to us, for eternal life, for forgiveness, for daily strength.    It is faith alone, not faith plus proof.  You cannot prove the existence of a personal God or the divinity of Christ or the reliability of the Bible or life after death.  You can’t prove any of these.  Faith is trusting the truthfulness and goodness of God, without having proof.

The last beam is the freedom to love as Christ loves, with the love of God living inside us.  We are not a faith of rules and regulations that govern our daily lives.  We have only one rule and we can remember the one rule or commandment:  to love as Christ loves.  There is not one commandment in the Old Testament that commands us to love; there is not one of the Ten Commandments that command us to love.  The law and the commandments are inadequate because they do not invite us to love with the love of Christ living inside of us.  There are many denominations that convert the New Testament into laws and regulations.  There are the Old Testament regulations and then there are New Testament regulations.  The New Testament contains the new rules for daily living such as women cannot speak in church, divorced people cannot remarry, slavery is acceptable, blacks and whites cannot intermarry, men cannot wear long hair.  These are all rules find in the New Testament, and many people make the New Testament into a rule book. We are now to follow these New Testament rules.  Rather, for us as Lutherans, there is one rule. Maybe it is because our minds are so small that we can remember only one commandment; but it is a fundamental one:  love as Christ loves.  When you love as Christ loves, you will fulfill the law. … Does that mean we throw out the Ten Commandments and convert them into ten suggestions?  No, the Ten Commandments are as valid as the laws of gravity, but the Ten Commandments and the other commandments are not adequate because they do not mention the word, love. Jesus has freed us from the laws and traditions of the Old Testament, the Norwegians, the Germans, the Americans; and we are free to discover what it means to love as Christ loves. So we have one commandment for daily life:  to love as Christ loves.

So we end where we began.  What is a Lutheran?  One who belongs to a Lutheran church?  No, many people belong to the Lutheran church but who aren’t Lutheran.  Is a Lutheran someone who carries a picture of Luther?  No, there are no pictures of Luther in any of our homes or church building. Is a Lutheran someone who has Lutheran traditions from Norway, Germany or Denmark?  No, a Lutheran is not someone who celebrates specific national heritages.  What is a Lutheran?  A Lutheran is a Christian who worships God with his or her mind, who believes in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith that are like backbones in a body, like a chassis in a car, like steel girders in a tall building.  And what are these backbone doctrines?  Bible, Christ, Grace, Faith, Love.  Five basic doctrines of the Christian faith. We are not spiritual jelly fish but have a doctrinal backbone to make us stronger.

I am not sure about you, but I like the name of our congregation: Grace Lutheran Church. Amen.

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